Every day, as bombings and gun battles erupt in Iraq, American soldiers risk their lives as targets of insurgents who hide among civilians. How do you prepare troops for this kind of battle?
CBS Evening News Saturday anchor Thalia Assuras reports from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where a a model of an Iraqi town — created by a Hollywood producer — trains troops for the dangers ahead.
"Mostly the goal is the atmosphere," says Col. Ronald Johnson of the U.S. Marine Corps. "It's just trying to replicate the same sights and sounds that we hear in Iraq with those that the marines will experience when they get over there."
Col. Johnson has served two tours in Iraq, Assuras reports. His unit will be deployed again this summer. Before they leave, Johnson wants his marines — especially the rookies — to have more realistic training.
And Johnson thinks the model town gives a pretty good feeling for what it will be like for the troops when they reach Iraq.
"I think if you close your eyes for a minute and you hear the music and you hear the sounds, you almost feel like you're back in it," he says.
When the War on Terror began, the marines called upon California television producer Stu Segall for help. Segall turned his San Diego television lot into a marine training ground where he estimates more than 20,000 marines have passed through. This village at camp Lejeune is his most elaborate effort to date.
"The only thing that they tell me that this is not like is the smell," Segall said. "It doesn't smell the same."
He added that creating these sets — which will never hit the small screen — has been particularly fulfilling. "Being in the television-entertainment side of things, realism is what we try and do. When we can bring it to training and have the marines respond to it, that's the real rewarding part of it," he said.
It's a full-fledged production. Set designers created a realistic village complete with a signs in Arabic, a mosque and a marketplace. Makeup artists create wounds and injuries, and pyrotechnic specialists make simulated "IEDS," the improvised explosive devices that have killed so many in Iraq. But no one gets hurt here — the shrapnel is made of cork.
And — like any other Hollywood set — there are actors. Among them are amputees, whose missing limbs make injuries appear all too real.
The cast also includes Iraqi-Americans like Salah Salea who help the marines practice speaking Arabic and also offer insights into their culture.
"I teach them a good way to build relationship with Iraqis. To build relationship that's my heart and mind," said Salea.
The hope is young marines will be ready for the chaos they'll most likely face in the real Iraq.
And troops approve. "So far, it's been the most realistic training I've had," said Pvt. 1st Class Jordan Kinal. "There's a lot going on and a lot to pay attention to and I know it's not the real thing, but it was pretty intense."
Historically Hollywood has helped on the home front with patriotic wartime films — but this time their efforts may help on the front lines.